“Listen to Your Heart” Spotlight on Poco’s Rusty Young
Singer/songwriter/instrumentalist Rusty Young is one of world’s preeminent pedal steel guitarists and a founding member of the band, Poco. Poco originated when the ‘60s rock group, Buffalo Springfield (“For What It’s Worth”) was recording its final album and group members Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and Richie Furay were recording their own material without the other band members present. One of Furay’s projects was his country rock classic, “Kind Woman,” which he recorded with the help of producer/engineer/bassist Jim Messina and steel guitar player Rusty Young.
When Buffalo Springfield broke up, Young, Messina, and Furay started their own band with the idea of continuing to explore the new musical genre they were developing — country rock. After completing their line-up with drummer George Grantham and bassist Randy Meisner, they called the group Pogo after the comic strip character, but soon after changed the name to Poco.
Poco’s first album, 1969’s Pickin’ Up the Pieces, is considered one of the pioneering albums in country rock. In 1970, the band reached the Billboard Top 40 with their third effort, a live recording entitled DeLIVErin’.
Over the years, Jim Messina left Poco to join Loggins & Messina, and Richie Furay moved on to join The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. Randy Meisner joined the Eagles and was replaced for a time by Timothy B. Schmidt — who later went on to replace Meisner in the Eagles. Original member George Grantham also left Poco and ended up playing drums for various artists including Ricky Skaggs.
Rusty Young, however — along with Jim Messina’s replacement, Paul Cotton — continued on with Poco. In 1978, the pair created Legend, an album which became Poco’s most commercially successful recording and which contained a song that Rusty Young wrote and sang lead vocal on — “Crazy Love.” The album was certified gold.
In 1989, all five of the original members of Poco reunited for Legacy, another recording which attained gold record status. Throughout the 2000s, the group — with various musicians — continued to record and travel the world playing live concerts, some of which featured one or more of the founding members.
Poco’s latest recording is their 2013 effort, All Fired Up. In 2017, Rusty Young released his very first solo album, Waitin’ for the Sun.
These days, Young, 74, tours with Poco and its current line-up which includes Tom Hampton on guitar, Rick Lonow on drums, and Jack Sundrud on bass. As the sole remaining founder of Poco, Rusty is the only group member to have played at every single live concert and on every Poco recording since 1968.
Spotlight Central recently had a chance to catch up with Rusty Young and talk with him about his childhood musical influences, his experiences as an instrumentalist and singer/songwriter, and what he’s been up to lately during the current suspension of live concerts.
Spotlight Central: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
Rusty Young: I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s in Colorado — and I was even playing music in the 1950s — performing in churches, bars, and retirement homes. The country bands I was in in the ’50s and ’60s played music by Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams, but also by Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, so there was a mixture of all kinds of American music. Back in those times, steel guitar was my primary instrument, and I’d play that kind of music six night a week — so it was a great background for a person learning how to write songs.
Spotlight Central: When you say you played “steel guitar,” do you mean lap steel guitar or pedal steel guitar?
Rusty Young: It started off with me playing lap steel, but around 1960, I got my first pedal steel guitar. Pedal steel guitars were very difficult to come by in the late-‘50s. Shot Jackson in Nashville had one, but after Fender came out with one, they became more accessible. I think I had the first one in Colorado when they first came out, though, so for me, it was lap steel first and then pedal steel.
Spotlight Central: You played lap steel guitar before you even played a traditional guitar, didn’t you?
Rusty Young: Yes, lap steel guitar was my first instrument. When I was six years old, I started on it.
Spotlight Central: And then you also moved on to play both dobro and banjo. With your experience, was it easy for you to migrate over to those instruments?
Rusty Young: From lap steel, it was a pretty easy move. I didn’t play much dobro until we started Poco — I had played a little bit of dobro in sessions back in Colorado — but it wasn’t until I was in Poco that I played more of it; it was an instrument that was really well-suited for Poco. And I learned banjo in the mid-‘60s when the folk thing hit and every folk trio had a banjo player in it. At the time, I loved banjo, and that’s when I learned how to play a 5-string banjo.
I also had a pretty good background in music theory. I took private lessons from some of the University of Colorado professors, and I had some great teachers who taught me music theory, so I could apply that to whatever instrument I was trying to learn to play, as well.
Spotlight Central: You played pedal steel guitar on recording sessions for Gladys Knight, Joan Baez, Three Dog Night, Joe Walsh, and many more. Do you have any favorite memories of working as a session musician?
Rusty Young: In the early ’70s when Poco hit and was the “big thing” in L.A., a lot of record producers there would call me up to play on records. Even today, I keep getting reminded of records I played on that I had long forgotten! I was the only steel player around who could read music, so I did all kinds of steel guitar things. I played background steel for movies and for The Beverly Hillbillies — and with Ricky Nelson, too; I just did all kinds of stuff.
You mention Gladys Knight — and I know this still happens today —but I got the call and I went into the studio and, of course, she wasn’t there; I played for the producer. The same thing happened with Three Dog Night when I played on “Never Been to Spain” — none of the guys were there; it was just Richie Podolor, their producer. So that was pretty common, but when I worked with Joan Baez, she was there, and Joe Walsh was there at that session.
Actually, speaking of Joe Walsh, here’s a funny story about him. Poco played with The James Gang in St. Louis — we opened for them in the early ’70s — and Joe Walsh was just great; he just played so well — he was really amazing. Now, Richie Furay had always wanted to be a lead guitar player, so after the show, we went over to see Joe. And Richie was going on and on about how great Joe played and saying he wished he could do that, too, and Joe said, “It’s not that hard! Here’s my room number” — we were all staying at the same hotel — “Just come on over and in 20 minutes I can teach you how to play like I play.”
Now I’d grown up — even all through my teenage years and everything — teaching guitar, and I said, “I gotta see this!”
So we go back to the hotel. Richie drags his guitar up to Joe’s room, we knock on the door, and we go into this standard Holiday Inn room from back in the day, with two beds. Joe was already pretty much “in the mood”; he was in a “happy space,” let’s say. We go in and sit down, and Joe says, “OK, here,” and he picks up his guitar and he plays, [sings quickly] “Do-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo doo” — this really fancy riff. And then he goes over to Richie and says, “OK, now you do it.”
And, of course, there was no way Richie could do it. So Joe says, “No, wait. I’ll do it again,” and he does it again, this time a little slower. This went on for about 20 minutes with him saying, “Richie, it’s just not that hard…,” until we finally left.
About a month later I was home and the phone rang and it was Joe Walsh. Joe said, “Hey, Rusty, listen — we have this song on The James Gang album that we’d love to have you play pedal steel on,” and I said, “Hey, Joe. I’d love to do it, but it’s really not that hard…”
Spotlight Central: [Laughs] That’s funny! And speaking of Poco, what was it like working in Poco with musicians like Richie Furay and Jim Messina?
Rusty Young: I was a big fan of Richie’s at the time, so I was very happy to be involved with Richie. And Jimmy Messina was a brilliant engineer and a musician — he ran the sessions — and he’s one of my best friends to this day. Those were fun days, and working with Jimmy and Richie, I got the chance to introduce them to two of my friends — George Grantham, who had played drums with me in Colorado, and Randy Meisner, whom I’d known since we were teenagers; I’d always wanted to be in a band with Randy. So when we put Poco together, we had George and Randy, along with Jimmy and Richie, and I was in hog heaven.
Spotlight Central: In the beginning of Poco, you were more of an instrumentalist than a singer, but didn’t you once say that you learned to sing from a later member of Poco, Timothy B. Schmidt?
Rusty Young: Tim and I have similar voices. When Richie left the band, there was room for another songwriter, and I’d wanted to write. For the songs that I wrote, Timmy’s voice was perfect to sing the songs the way I heard them — I mean, Timmy’s a great singer; way better than I am — so that’s why he and I worked together; I’ve always admired his voice and he was the perfect guy to sing my songs.
Spotlight Central: Is it true that when Richie Furay was leaving Poco, David Geffen met with you and the other group members and suggested that although some of the members were “fine,” you were “in trouble” and gave you some professional advice?
Rusty Young: Well, saying I was ‘in trouble” was the advice; he didn’t really mean to give me advice, but it turned out to be a great moment. We flew from Colorado back to L.A. to meet with David Geffen, who was managing us at the time. I had heard rumors that Richie was gonna do something with Chris Hillman and J.D. Souther, so on the airplane I said to Richie, “Richie, I’m hearing these rumors, and if the rumors are true, can you let me know? This way, I can get my life in order, because who knows what’s gonna happen if you leave the band?” and I’ll never forget him saying, “I’ll be the last one to leave Poco.”
So we went into the meeting, and I was in a pretty good mood, and that’s when David Geffen called Richie into his office, and then Geffen came out — not Richie — and he said, “Richie’s leaving Poco.”
So there goes that.
And Geffen told Timothy and Paul, “You guys both write and sing, so you’re gonna be just fine — don’t worry about it” — but then he came over to me. Now, I was on the cover of Guitar Player magazine and I was the #1 guy who had pretty much reached the top of the game for steel guitar playing, and Geffen said, “You don’t write and you don’t sing, do you?” and I said, “No,” and then he said, “Well, you’re in trouble.”
That’s when I realized that the people who are important in the music business are the people who write and sing. And so a light went off in my head and I realized that I needed to pursue that — which is something I already really wanted to do — but I realized that now it was something I really needed to do; I just couldn’t depend on being a really good musician.
Spotlight Central: And then Poco went on to have its biggest hit with a song you wrote and sang on which, of course, was “Crazy Love.” Did you have a specific motivation for writing that song other than “I want to write a great song”?
Rusty Young: Sometimes songs are gifts and they just come to you, and that one I wrote in less than an hour. The chorus just hit me one day in L.A. when I was hanging around the house. So that was a really easy song to write, and it was a gift. A few songs like that are. I think “Rose of Cimarron” was a gift, as well.
You know, I was always trying to become a better songwriter, and Poco was always trying to get a Top 40 hit song, and when I finally played “Crazy Love” for people, they said, “That sounds like a hit.” The record label was going to drop Poco — because Timothy had left to join the Eagles and George had left, too, so it was just me and Paul Cotton — and when they heard “Crazy Love” they decided not to drop Poco. That turned out to be a good move for all of us.
Spotlight Central: And speaking of Poco songs, the band’s been together for over 50 years and has provided music lovers with so many great songs— “Kind Woman,” “You Better Think Twice,” “Good Feelin’ to Know,” “Rose of Cimarron,” “Heart of the Night,” etc. Do you have a personal favorite Poco song to listen to or to perform?
Rusty Young: I really like “Rose of Cimarron” a lot; it was such a neat gift. To me, it’s kind of a timeless song. It’s the most recorded song of any in the Poco catalog — it has been recorded by more artists around the world than any of our other songs — and so that one has a special place for me. And if it hadn’t been for “Crazy Love,” Poco wouldn’t be here today — it would have ended in 1978 — so I really love that song, too, and I enjoy playing it every night. You know, it’s not easy in this business to get a hit — a Top 10 hit, or a #1 hit, or to sell a million records — and I feel very blessed that I got that gift, so I’m thrilled with both of those songs.
Spotlight Central: More recently, in 2017, you recorded your first-ever solo album, Waitin’ for the Sun. It has such a catchy title song — and it has such a neat video to go with it, too — where did you get the idea for that?
Rusty Young: I had been thinking about retiring, and I wanted to do some fun things, so I went out with my friend, Jimmy Messina — we do concerts together where he does his Loggins & Messina stuff, and then we play Poco songs which we recorded together, and then I do some songs — to do a series of dates with him.
And at one of the dates in California, I was approached by Kirk Pasich, who has this label called Blue Élon, and he asked me backstage if I’d ever thought about doing a solo record. I hadn’t really — you know, everybody in the band had done solo records: Richie and Jimmy and Tim and Paul — but I’d never done one; I’d only worked on Poco records. So it was kind of intriguing. Plus, I was reaching the end of my career, so I thought, “This could be something I could do before I wrap things up” — this way, people could see my contribution in the form of a solo record where I would, pretty much, be doing the whole shebang.
So I said “Yes,” and I came home and spent the next four or five months writing here at the cabin in Missouri. “Waitin’ for the Sun” was the experience of writing that record. I would get up at 4 or 5 in the morning with a cup of coffee, a legal pad and a pen, and my guitar. I’d be overlooking the hills and the river here and just waiting for the sun to come up, and then I’d start writing. One day, “It’s just another morning/Waiting for the sun to rise” came out, and I said, “Great! Here’s another song that wrote itself!”
Another one of my favorite songs on that album is called “My Friend.” I wrote that about the 50 years of Poco. It’s looking back at the days when it was the five of us and, except for Richie, we had no money. George and I — along with my friend, Miles — were living in an apartment out in the Valley, and Randy was struggling, and we didn’t have anything but the notion of starting this band together that we really wanted to start.
And to come all that way from there to where you now look and you have guys from Buffalo Springfield, Loggins & Messina, the Eagles, and of course Poco, all in the same band in 1969 rehearsing? We never dreamed of all the things that would happen to the five of us 50 years later, and all we would accomplish. So I wrote “My Friend” just looking back on all those years, and about what great friends the guys are.
Spotlight Central: And even more recently, you digitally released a new song, “Listen to Your Heart,” the proceeds of which benefit a local Missouri animal center?
Rusty Young: Yeah, that’s right. Mary, my wife, is really active in the community. One time, they asked her to do some dog-sitting at a kennel near the town of Steelville. She did, and as it turns out, it was a really sad thing. The kennel was a little cinder block prison in a flood plain where the dogs were all muddy and wet and not taken care of. Mary came home and was really upset, and was wondering what we could do about it. As a songwriter, the first thing I did was write a song telling her to listen to her heart, saying we could make a difference if you “listen to your heart.”
I talked to Kurt at the label and he said, “Why don’t you record the song?” and we did. We recorded it out in L.A. and then we released it — you can find it on Spotify and other places that carry music — and the label donates all of the proceeds to building a new shelter for the dogs. We’ve already raised around $35 or $40,000 and, hopefully, we’ll have the whole situation taken care of as a result of the song.
Spotlight Central: That’s great! And with the suspension of live concerts, what else are you up to these days?
Rusty Young: I have a book that I’m working on, and some new songs, and I’m doing a lot of housework and cleaning up around here — you know, there are always so many things you want to do, but you end up putting them off because you don’t have the time? So we’re doing a lot of those sorts of things.
Spotlight Central: Is there anything else you’d like to add — especially any words of wisdom for those of us who are looking forward to seeing Poco perform live again?
Rusty Young: I think it’s going to be awhile before concerts are happening — certainly before I’ll be out there doing concerts. I’m not sure what the future is for me and going out and playing a lot of concerts; I hate not being able to do it anymore, but things are pretty weird.
So we’re just waiting to see what happens, especially for this fall. It’s really hard for the promoters — the people who put on concerts — to promote a concert where you can only have half the number of people in the room that it takes in order to pay the artists. Plus, traveling is so difficult anyway, I can’t imagine how traveling is going to be this fall — especially if you have to fly; it might just have to be dates that you can drive to that you can do. So there are so many obstacles in the way right now that we’re just waiting to see how everything shakes out.
Spotlight Central: In the meantime, you’ll still be creating music at home, so fans can continue to hear both you and Poco that way?
Rusty Young: I just talked to Kirk and he wants me to record some new songs for him — maybe an EP or another album — so we’ll have that coming down the line. And you never know, maybe they’ll be a new Poco record coming down the line, too!